I’ve been having a think about art and creative output generally, and two things strike me, the first being that I like all sorts of things and I appreciate others even if I don’t like them. The difference? The first will likely be attractive in some way – a well written, zipping along story or an immediately engaging painting with striking imagery – but it might not be ‘good’. Simply put, it’s not ‘literary’ or ‘cutting edge’; it won’t rate any critical acclaim or win the Booker or the Turner Prize. But it might, depending on who promotes it, whose name is on it, and who’s up for buying into it. The second comprises that group of written or visual works I have to struggle to make sense of and, while I may find I appreciate them for the skill and tangible artistry, I may not like them much. The ones I do like tend to be those with a message I can derive from them. Banksy’s dystopian theme park, while not a thing I’d take home for my kitchen, were that at all feasible, had a clear message about the state of our country, the world, and our busted politics. Also I’m attracted to grunge. Other kinds of critically acclaimed work, Marina Abramovic I’m looking at you, leave me wondering what I’m supposed to take away from them.
For a good few decades, I’ve worked with adults with learning (intellectual) disabilities and if I learned anything at all from that, it’s this: it doesn’t matter how valuable or important your message, if the recipient doesn’t understand it, doesn’t get it, then you haven’t done your job. If art is a communication of some sort – and if it isn’t, then what is it? – then that communication has to be effective or it’s pointless. But so often, in both art and literature, we’re left as consumers to figure it out for ourselves. For the privileged few, and I’m one or I wouldn’t be here, there are interviews and documentaries, podcasts and video blogs about and with the creative and their work. We gain insight into the motivations that underpinned a piece of work or their body of work, and we hear from them directly the emotions that drove them. No resorting to cod psychology and third-hand speculative analysis; horse’s mouth.
But that’s a tiny percentage even of the work’s actual audience so what about everyone else? Are they meant to be excluded from this dialogue or were they simply not factored in? When I think of my clients struggling to read the TV listings but desperate to see Dr Who or Eastenders, knowing that these forms of art and entertainment mattered to them too, I feel bad about having written obscurely tangled tales in the past. Literary fiction requires you to work but if you have to work too hard, how can it possibly achieve what the writer hopes for it? Similarly, art work where ‘I know what I like’ too often sits alongside ‘my five year old could have done that’ and seems to mean ‘I don’t understand it, therefore it’s rubbish’. We lost those people because they hadn’t seen a documentary or heard us talk about how that work came about, and there was no hint of a meaning nearby to help them reframe their opinion.
I’m at the beginning of this course so I recognise the possible grandiosity of my next statement which is that, as a story-teller, I want to make art that says something, that has meaning and a message. I want to do that better than I did with many of my short stories because, what was that estimate for how long people look at a piece of art before moving on – 10 seconds? I have to give it a leg up, some hints as to what’s going on, enough so that even someone with literacy difficulties can get something out of it or why bother at all?
I’ve made myself a chart. A way of analysing my own work and also figuring out how to write short bios for pieces that need a bit of help. I still like pretty much as I like a ripping yarn with no literary credentials to speak of, but meaningful? Well, if that’s the intention and it’s not accessible then I’ve failed.
Last night I finished watching a documentary on Sean Scully, a large, somewhat opinionated man whose abstracts attract big money. He has a troubled past but nevertheless, he annoyed me with his arrogance and so I was taking his story in bite-sized doses. Then in the last twenty minutes, asked why he goes to his galleries and explains his paintings, he said this:
You can’t make something as arrogant as an abstract painting and then just say get on with it or you’re stupid.
Suddenly, whether it’s because he has a personal need to be understood – and that’s certainly possible because, when push comes to shove, who doesn’t? – or because, regretting his lack of involvement with his first son who was then killed in a car crash at age eighteen he found a new insight into the nature of communication with the arrival of his second, this resonates more than anything with my own concerns about the value of accessibility. It benefits all of us – maker and viewer/reader, it shows intellectual humility in that it requires us to take another’s perspective, and it forces us to consider ourselves as a part of the human circle not something separate and elevated from it. It might also force us not to be lazy makers with a paucity of ideas who transfer our own lack of clarity to the audience.